The Hunger is billed as an opera, but its composer, Donnacha Dennehy, prefers to call it a “docu-cantata”. It is relatively short, at around 75 minutes, and scored for just two voices, Katherine Manley’s soprano and sean nos singer Iarla O Lionaird. The documentary bit is supplied via snippets of interviews conducted by director Tom Creed with such figures as Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman and Maureen Murphy.
These talking heads appear on video screens placed about the stage, which also hosts the Crash Ensemble’s players and a diagonal strip of Irish bogland, where Manley and O Lionaird sing their parts.
Manley plays Asenath Nicholson, an American who visited Ireland during the famine and documented her experiences. O Lionaird plays an unnamed famine victim. The contrasting stances and vocal worlds of this pair provide what drama there is. She, like the talking heads, describes and attempts to articulate, to explain. His words, drawn from a keen and a contemporary song, Na Pratai Dubha, reduce language to its most elemental utterances: lamentations, appeals to God and for pity, the oft repeated “trua” and “ochonn”.
It’s a counterpoint reflected effectively by Dennehy’s score, stirring in its use of discordant, jarring elements, and flavoured from the musical worlds of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
The Hunger is overtly political as it reminds us that the economic factors, and victim blaming that characterised the British response to the Irish famine remain very much possible today. “People don’t change that much,” as Krugman pithily says, and you don’t have to look very hard to find proof of that.
The Irish famine, then, was not unique, but The Hunger is at its most effective when dealing with its specifics, rather than when labouring this point. In his clash of two linguistic worlds, Dennehy has found an effective way of dramatising what a cultural catastrophe the famine was, greatly speeding to its death Irish-language civilisation on the island of Ireland. It’s a wound, a rupture, we carry to this day.